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This article is taken from PN Review 48, Volume 12 Number 4, March - April 1986.

Anti-Imperative: Questioning the Old Order Catherine Belsey

Once upon a time, and a much simpler time it was, there were four great English novelists and D. H. Lawrence. All five of them were in favour of life, and in the course of their careers they were to varying degrees mature. Their maturity and their greatness could be demonstrated by longish quotations from their works which revealed plainly (that is, without the need to argue the case) whatever it was that they were adduced in support of.

This was fine as long as you were clear that the main purpose of reading was to arrive at a judgement of an author's worth, as long as you could see what was so plainly evident in the quotes and, above all, as long as you were yourself mature and for life. When any of this was not the case, however, it came out as a tiny bit authoritarian. And when it also led in higher education to the training of generations of nineteen-year-olds to dismiss as immature substantial areas even of the work of the famous five, it began to seem more than a little absurd.

That, at least, is how it looked to those of us who went straight from C. S. Lewis to Roland Barthes, and always tended in consequence to see literary studies as a particularly pleasurable form of cultural history rather than as a secular religion, complete with moral teaching, mystical experiences and access to the continuity of felt life which ...


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